The reading/reviewing/ranking rat race
This is a navel-gazing post so feel free to skip if the subject isn’t of interest. I’ll have a review for Wendy’s TBR Challenge up tomorrow.
I’ve been spending most of my discretionary time this winter reading and writing. I haven’t been blogging here for the same reasons a lot of people don’t blog much anymore. I really liked Brie’s post about starting up again; it encapsulates a lot of the reasons I resurrected the blog. But like her, I’m not blogging as much as I’d hoped to. It’s hard to blog into a void, especially when there aren’t many other people blogging regularly. I don’t mean that to be a whine, just an observation. I put a lot of book blogs back in my RSS feed reader but most of them rarely have new posts (Cathy at 746 Books is an exception, and Kay/Miss Bates posts pretty regularly as well). Despite being an academic and working on my own a lot, it turns out that like many other humans I like the validation of feedback and seeing other people devoting time to things I’m doing and care about. Quelle surprise.
Even if I haven’t been blogging much here, I have been reading. So I wind up at Goodreads a lot. I’m still at LibraryThing as well, but I’m way behind cataloguing my reading there because, again, no feedback. So I post my reading status at GR, write up reviews, and comment in various threads in groups I belong to. They’re mostly groups that follow major book awards and the Tournament of Books. Generally I enjoy these groups and I look forward to hearing readers’ reactions to books I’ve read or am planning to read or am happy to learn about. They spur me to read more and to try novels I might not otherwise know much about.
BUT. There’s always a but, right? After a couple of years of lurking at and then commenting in these groups, following members’ reviews and participating in mostly interesting discussions, I’m discovering that our interests are more divergent than I at first realized (or realized but didn’t want to acknowledge). If you’re organizing reading around book awards, then obviously there’s going to be a horse-race aspect to the reading and ranking process. But I guess I didn’t foresee how much it would start to bother me. Books are compared to each other because they’re on a list together (which makes sense), they’re evaluated as to whether they belong on a particular list, and they can be championed or denigrated to a degree I find both unexpected and off-putting.
Example: Milkman by Anna Burns. As readers of this blog know, I loved this book when I was introduced to it by the 2018 Booker longlist. I embraced it wholeheartedly and was thrilled when it won the Booker. A lot of readers were put off by it and I could understand that; stream-of-consciousness books aren’t for everyone and it has a very distinctive voice. If the voice doesn’t work for you the reading experience is going to be unrewarding at best. It’s a Marmite book. Which is not that uncommon, really, especially in litfic.
But the way the discussions over Milkman have played out have been really unpleasant. People who love the book keep shoving it in the faces of people who don’t, and to a lesser degree vice versa. Every time the novel is nominated for something, the battle begins again. Every win and loss is taken as validation by the respective sides. It’s ridiculous, juvenile, and totally unfair to the book, the author, and the majority of readers.
I’m really dreading next month’s US release of Sally Rooney’s Normal People, because it’s had a similar reception in a couple of the circles I participate in. The people who like it are calling it a masterpiece and future classic and the people who don’t are pushing back hard.
Why does this bother me when it doesn’t bother me that much in the sports context? I can laugh off Liverpool, Oakland A’s, and SF Giants haters. And hell, I’ve been having to apologize for the Oakland/LA/soon-to-be-Las-Vegas Raiders since my teens. But somehow with books it feels different. Maybe it’s because books are creative products with which a reader has a personal relationship. My reaction to a book can be analytical, but it is also and always intensely personal. It reflects something about the world, for good or ill, that resonates for me.
Even a forgettable book leaves some impression. Today I found myself feeling defensive for the criticisms of Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight over at the TOB. This is a book I admired and liked but did not love, whose author needs no help from me given his accomplishments and accolades. And yet, there I was, sitting on my hands to avoid contributing to the back and forth.
I keep looking for a place online where people just talk about books and what is inside the pages of books. Not whether they scored an ARC, not whether or not Debut Author’s book really fits the Goldsmiths criteria, not whether Book X is so much better than Book Y which was nominated for Prize Z when Book X wasn’t and what a travesty and let me say that in 7 or 8 places over the next month.
None of us are professional critics. None of us. We are all hanging out online to talk about books. Being an Influencer gets you what, free ARCs? A higher ranking in the GR reviewers’ list? More Likes and RTs and Shares and Followers? What does that have to do with reading and enjoying a book and sharing your reactions with other readers? That’s about books as commodities, books as vehicles to enhance personal status. Not about books as enjoyment or intellectual and emotional growth.
If 90 percent of participants in Romanceland are authors or aspiring authors, in Goodreadsland 90 percent of participants are either aspiring authors or aspiring critics. And in both there seem to way too many people who want to be Someone in the Industry. Meanwhile, I just want to talk about books and to think about whether a book succeeds or fails on the terms it sets out for itself. No more and no less. It’s harder than I expected.
I am an aspiring author (although I don’t love that term; I prefer “writer”) and I also enjoy influencing (I love turning others on to a book I’ve loved). I’ve fallen into some of the behaviors you describe (more out of the latter than the former, I think).
And yet—what got me interested in both to begin with was a love of books and a love of discussing books. My first manuscript grew out of the joy I got in participating in book discussions on the old AAR boards (back when they had threaded comments) and on a private romance novel discussion group. I loved some of the points readers there made about tropes and themes, and I wanted to explore some of those and flip others in order to give back to that community of readers whose discussions had given so much to me. Before that I had no thought of being a romance writer.
So I miss that kind of discussion so much. Those conversations were a rich soil from which some great works grew and blossomed, be they blog posts and discussions, or manuscripts. Now—I don’t know what books and blogs bloom out of. Reading other books, fanfic and wanting ARCs, I guess. Those can all be good, but without the in-depth discussions and the experience of discovering a book in some obscure corner of the library or bookstore without having heard anything about it before, some of the magic is gone. For me at least, the soil is thinner.
A while back, on one of your blogs, Donna Thorland talked about how the proliferation of media has made it hard to discuss the content of the books themselves, so that thinning is probably inevitable and possibly irreversible. There have been some positive aspects to the proliferation, too—greater diversity and representation, for one.
Your post is timely for me, because yesterday Jayne’s review of Heyer’s The Convenient Marriage prompted me to search to see if we had a review of A Civil Contract at DA and I found your review of it from 2012 and the entire long discussion that followed. There was some lovely analysis of the book in that discussion but also some of what you describe, some people ardently championing the book and others just as passionate in their hatred of it. I think some of that is natural whenever a book evokes a strong reaction, but it’s better—richer and more interesting—when people support their arguments with observations about the book.
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Oh my goodness, I’d forgotten I reviewed A Civil Contract! When I saw Jayne’s review of A Convenient Marriage yesterday at DA I thought for a moment it was ACC. That was a wonderful discussion, wasn’t it? And it had everything that I’m complaining about missing: lively debate, (mostly) respect for the other side, and no snark or “you like THAT?” And lots of actual talk about the book and what worked or didn’t. We just don’t have that many platforms for that now. And even the formats conspire against us: remember how we all fought against nested comments at DA, because they’d break up the discussion? They worked well on chat boards but not on blogs. I should think about getting rid of them here.
“Aspiring author” has a whiff of condescension to it, doesn’t it, which of course I don’t mean. I don’t use “writer” because it feels too broad for what I’m talking about, which is people who are writing in the community. I’m a writer but not a fiction author, so I always call myself a reader. But there’s a big difference between influencing because you want to spread the love of your favorite novels and influencing because you want to elevate yourself in a community. Of course these motives overlap in the bookternet, but it seems as if the balance has shifted irrevocably.
I think you and Donna are right about the proliferation of platforms and the thinning of discussion. But I still believe it’s more a result of commodification and monetization. What the latter do is create a situation where no un-commodified space can stay that way because the gains to commodification and monetization are potentially so great. And people who don’t want that fade away while people with those interests flow in, so the churn is in one direction. I don’t think there’s a way around it until something big changes on the internet more generally.
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Yes. I found that ACC discussion fascinating, even as one who hasn’t read the book.
Re. the “You like THAT?” tone–I think social media (Twitter esp.) makes snap judgements easier to make and it’s become so commonplace to jump down other people’s throats. That spills over to other online forums to a certain extent.
Agreed re. nested comments. If it’s not too much trouble to get rid of them here, I think that would be good.
Re influencing to spread the love vs. influencing to elevate yourself in the community–not only do these motives overlap, but sometimes it’s hard to untangle one from the other. I mean, if one wants not to be speaking into a void, or to spread the love for books, then elevating oneself in the community is a way to accomplish that. That doesn’t mean there isn’t ego in the mix too, but it’s not always 100% about the ego.
For myself, I have to admit that those 100+ comment threads at Dear Author were as intimidating as they were exhilarating. If the post was one I’d written, then I felt like I was in the hot seat. It was one reason why I almost never wrote op-eds. But when I was getting a more moderate level of attention, say 20-50 comments, it was exciting to be in the center of things. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.
As much as I miss that level of attention, it’s never been my only reason for writing reviews. I agree, though, that it’s not motivating to feel that you are posting into a void.
As to proliferation vs. commodification, I think they go hand in hand. The proliferation means there is a lot more competition now for the readers’ (or should i say consumers? No doubt that is how some of these media companies think of us) attention. That translates into doing everything possible to get that attention and the dollars that go along with it.
“And people who don’t want that fade away while people with those interests flow in, so the churn is in one direction.”
Yes. I’ve thought that about genre changes, too. For example when historical romance moved in a more wallpaper-history direction, the readers who wanted more history moved on to historical fiction, historical mysteries and such.The more of these readers the genre lost, the more authors had to write to the remaining market, and the more that market shrank. That’s my theory FWIW.
“I don’t think there’s a way around it until something big changes on the internet more generally.”
Sadly, I agree.
You’re absolutely right that it’s never 100% ego. Those people don’t last in healthy communities. But the churn is strong, and it reproduces itself, as you say. The more people who don’t like something leave, the more likely it is that newcomers will be people who like that thing, whether it’s cheerleading reviews or street teams or particular types of historical or contemporary romances. It’s just how the process works. Sigh.
That said, I’ve been involved in some really great discussions on Twitter about two different books in the last 24 hours, with two different groups of people. I do miss those discussions and as much as I enjoy Twitter, I prefer blog discussions because (surprise!) I am wordy.
Plus I had a great email discussion with Janine about one of the two books as well.
Sadly they’re not as regular as they used to be. 😦
Kaetrin, you are really good at starting and maintaining conversations that are actually about books. At least you were when I was on Twitter and I have no reason to believe that’s changed. 🙂
“None of us are professional critics. None of us.”
Excuse me! 2019 is the year I drop all pretenses of humility and start to refer to myself as a Critic, so please treat me with the proper respect and reverence I deserve!
I’ve been in a silent fight with the two sides of the reviewer coin for years, and it’s a struggle to marry the side that likes to be current and getting ARCs with the side that just wants to talk about books and not be part of the industry, and I think we’re all fighting this tension and struggling to find the balance that fits us best. I made the choice that best worked for me, but I can’t tell anyone else how to do it. What I can say is that I really missed blogging, and now that I’m back on the horse (the laziest horse ever, but still) I’m happy but it still sucks that there’s no engagement; I blog for myself, yes, but I would be lying if I said that I don’t care about comments and engagement. But we’re all in this boat, and I see people on twitter who are making a conscious effort to talk about books as readers and nothing else, even when the conversation is about the latest It book, so that brings me comfort. The whole dynamic can be fraught and reader spaces keep disappearing, but 2019 is also the year I’ll focus on the good of the community and try to be less cranky. But boy, those TOB people sound exhausting!
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I tried and tried to leave a comment at your blog when you first posted and stupid Blogger wouldn’t let me. And now you post on mine and it goes to spam. Grrr. A day late but I found it. WELCOME!
It’s impossible not to care about engagement, especially when we can remember a vibrant blogging culture. In futzing around with the blog I discovered that I have 95 followers. 95! I’m sure half of them are bots, but still. That’s more than nothing and given how much I lurk I should be keeping them in mind.
One thing I really, really miss about Romanceland is the fact that it’s almost all women. TOB on GR is more women than men, but the “commentariat” at the site has a number of men who like to talk. And the Awards-focused GR group I belong too feels like it has more men than women. Again, maybe that’s not the case, but boy do they talk a lot and issue a lot of declarative sentences. Exhausting is right.
Thanks for mentioning me – although I have had my slumps in the past too. I have often felt a bit ‘out of’ the whole blogging rat race because I mainly talk about older books. I used to think that was a bad thing but now I’m not so sure!
Slumps are inevitable, but I’m so glad you keep coming back. And your blogging approach is the opposite of a bad thing. I learn so much and I enjoy your take on books.
Here is the most fun I have had with books lately: my husband had a cyst removed so couldn’t wear his glasses for a couple of days. I suggested audiobooks and downloaded the first part of Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time series for him. Then he started talking about them so I started listening again. Now I’m up to book 5 and he’s way up on 9 or something, and it’s like we have a new group of friends. Over dinner walking the dog we are talking about characters and their doings and also how much intention there is in the episodic structure and whether Powell or his narrator believes in fate…. (And I will say that the Twitter conversations I’ve observed of Janine’s about West from Lisa Kleypas’ latest have some of that same fun). Runner up: on the train coming home from church, my friend says “So I’m reading this book, Milkman…” Me: YES! This train trip is not long enough!
In my memory blogs were like this non-stop in the good old days, but of course they only occasionally rose to those heights. I, too, am trying to blog more, but I often think “why bother?” I don’t care about building a big audience or a brand but I do want to feel I’m not writing into a void. I castigate myself for not having any good ideas, but of course partly I had ideas in the old days because there were lots of active bloggers sparking conversations. So many posts took off from someone else’s.
I think the reason I am (sometimes) drawn to reading prize lists etc. is that others are also reading them so there is a conversation going, but then as you say, there is always ranking, rating and fighting for your choice going on, and sometimes the conversation is, again, more around the books than about the books.
This year I am really trying to just read what I feel like, but whatever I’m doing, I feel like I should be reading/doing something else (oh look, Sunita is on Goodreads reading that book and talking to that group–is that where the action is?). I know I’m doing that to myself, but it’s hard to shake when social media is your space for book talk. I can see why my IRL experiences freed me from that feeling of swirling conversation all around me that I am somehow missing out on.
Oh that sounds like so much fun! When TheHusband and I are reading the same thing we have a great time talking about it too, even if it’s not at exactly the same time. But it doesn’t happen as often as we’d like, and lately we’ve been in very different reading headspaces so we’ll tell each other about our reading but that’s it.
I was initially reluctant to write this post because it felt so whiny and navel-gazing, but it helped me figure out why I keep complaining yet going back. I have spent more than two decades in online spaces talking about my hobbies and interests, and the interactions and communities have meant a lot to me. I don’t have people IRL to talk to about them (knitting, yes, but not reading) and I’ve never been a book-club person. I’m just so used to jumping online and finding a conversation. It wasn’t Nirvana in the old days, that’s for sure, but it was exactly the kind of interaction I like best. But it only lasted as long as social media wasn’t easily monetizable.
Branding. That’s the term I was looking for. Yeah, I don’t want a brand either. I don’t even want vast numbers of people visiting my blog. When I was at DA and there were those huge discussions/debates around something I wrote, of course I got a thrill out of the attention, but it took so much time and energy to keep up and be responsive. I couldn’t sustain that now (I barely managed it then, and I spent more time online). I just want that Goldilocks spot where I have blogs to visit and people visiting me. You know, nothing much, just The World Designed For Sunita. 🙂
But I need to just pull up my big girl pants and blog. And if a social media space isn’t working for me, cut back. Scroll, as the young people say. No one says I have to read things that annoy me, especially when they’re supposed to be adding pleasure to my life.
Jumping in late, I know, which is sometimes fatal in a blog conversation. Sunita, when you find that venue where you can just talk books, let me know. I have few few people in my life to talk books with–only one or two lunch friends read as much as I do and in the same genres. So I depend on e-friends.
As you know, i’m on GR and mostly enjoy it. I write my reviews for myself, basically so I can actually refresh my memory when I stumble over the book title in my log! Every now and and then there’s a nice conversation going on in the comments and that’s great fun. Alas, it doesn’t happen often enough.
The two groups I’m involved in (Georgette Heyer Fans and Retro Reads) often have really good discussions. I have lurked on some of your TOB and Booker threads–a little too high energy for me!
As for blogs–please don’t give up! I have discovered some great books courtesy of your posts. Ditto for the blogs from Liz Mc2 and Miss Bates.
Never too late! Barb, you’re pretty much my model at GR, and I’ve found people to follow from your comments and likes on reviews and updates. I just have to ration myself and remind myself that nothing is ever going to exactly the way I want it to be, and that’s fine. It’s my job to police my own behavior, not other people’s to trim their sails.
I really do like blogging. It lets me figure stuff out. In some ways having fewer people reading is freeing, because it means I don’t have to worry about stuff being picked up and run away with, as happened occasionally in the old days. There really isn’t another platform that works the same way. So I will try to keep doing it. It’s good for me.
Thank you for the kind words. I’ve managed to acquire a group of GR friends that I feel comfortable interacting with, which is what I hoped to do.
First, thank you for the nod to Miss Bates. I started blogging in 2013, just as everyone seemed to be leaving blogs behind for social media. Always late to the game, I am 🙂 … and I keep it up because I really really like writing it. I know many people don’t read it, but I also know that the few who do read it loyally. I guess it’s the nature of the beast, to seek validation and I do like to know that people may appreciate my posts. Comments are kind of scary, as I think I may have offended someone LOL! So, it’s lovely when I get a generous one, but I’ll always assume I’ve messed up in some way.
Shortly after starting my blog, I joined Twitter and though I met many lovely people there, being off Twitter as a Lenten discipline has helped me realize that it isn’t for me. And there’s no judgement there either, I hope, none meant at all. I met lovely people there and enjoyed many a convo, especially when we had romance discussions. But my own experience with social media is that it made me a less introspective person and I’d lived my whole life pretty much in my head and books. Of course, it’s not the medium, but my own flaw/weakness. I think my blog allows me some of that introspective space and what I loved most about reading yours and Liz’s and others was that glimpse into others’ introspection. So, would love to see more of your writing here. Just sayin’. 🙂
But my own experience with social media is that it made me a less introspective person and I’d lived my whole life pretty much in my head and books.
This is exactly my experience. I found that I was so busy reading snippets and then arguing with people in my head that my brain had stopped having slow times. It was kind of frightening, to be honest, because it’s really hard for me to think and write without stretches of ruminative time. And social media replaced that time.
I agree about what blogs offer. It’s one of the reasons I’ve never let go of having an RSS reader, and putting more blogs back into mine has helped. I have no idea whether the blogs I read through my feed reader show up as visits, though. I hope they do. Something else to remember about who might be reading …
It’s really really nice to know I’m not alone in this experience of the living in the social media convo-universe. I was always thinking about what to post, checking, looking for responses, etc. There are plenty of people who can manage a balance, but I know it was damaging to me. I’m a BIG ruminator too, takes me long long stretches of time to come to any ideas, thoughts, conclusions, and even then.
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I have always enjoyed your blog. I lurk, and occasionally comment on a number of blogs.
I don’t have anyone to discuss romance or other genre fiction with (the people I hang out with IRL all seem to favour “literary” fiction), and I find that Twitter is not a very friendly place, so I blogs such as yours and Miss Bates’ provide a forum for exchanging ideas about the books I like to read – the post and comments about A Civil Contract are a good example of this.
Jennifer, thank you so much for commenting! That’s how I found romanceland too. I had a few people to talk mysteries and SFF with, but no one for romance. And it’s a wonderful community. That’s why I still hang around, if only at the edges, because there really isn’t another place like Romanceland.
One of the problems with book discussions on Twitter is, even with 280 characters, there’s not a lot of room for nuance and tone can get a bit lost even more easily than it did/can in blog comments (and we all know that happened/happens a lot as it is. But I’ll take book discussion where I can get it! LOL
I really appreciate #ReadRChat, #RomBkLove, #BkBrk and, just lately Meka has been posting some interesting bookish prompts which had started some fun discussions too.
I’m trying to read more but it’s hard with the fatigue that comes with healing and with being back to work full-time. I read at lunch and sometimes I’ll poke at non-fiction in the evenings but my reach far exceeds my grasp, too often.
I’m so happy that you, Liz, Brie, Kay/Miss Bates, and others are blogging regularly–I cling to my RSS reader like it’s a lifeline some days. I like seeing what y’all are reading and how it’s so often different from what I’m hoping to read or am in the midst of reading (I am on a massive SFF kick right now).
What I actually think is that I need to be more intentional with my time because I suspect that if I were, I’d find time for reading and writing and doing a better job at being a member of this little community of ours. ❤
Oh, Natalie, the fact that you are back to work (full time!) and are able to read at all is something we are all super-grateful for. For those of you who don’t know, Natalie had the year from hell in terms of horrible medical problems that took forever to diagnose let alone treat.
I know what you mean about clinging to feed readers. Romanceland and romances got me through my cancer treatments and chemo brain, when it took me hours to string a simple but coherent paragraph together and reading was an effort. But people were there, writing things for me to read, talking to me, making me feel like there was a world that I could still participate in. I agree that paying attention to how you spend your time is good, but healing comes first. And they always underestimate the actual time it takes. You get to 85% or 90% in reasonable time, but that last 5-10% is the kicker.
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Oh, Sunita! Yes, the last 5-10% is what’s kicking my ass these days. Trying to figure out if things are my new normal or if I should be concerned, remembering that I am literally still healing on the inside, and dealing with doctor appointments. I am so grateful for my new therapist—she’s a much better fit than my old one was.
Anyhow, I’m glad we’re all here and having these conversations.
And you need to read Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower because it is SO GOOD. And I think you’d like it.
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I am not a doctor (well, not the useful kind) but I doubt it’s the new normal. The last 5-10% take much longer than they like to tell you, especially when it’s cognitive in addition to physical. It’s too depressing for a lot of people and it can lead them to not work as hard to keep improving. But here’s a non-cognitive example: I broke my wrist and needed surgery to repair it. My bones were still brittle from the various treatments so they shattered more than usual. The orthopedist told me it would take 2 years (!) to get full range of motion and strength back but I would. He was right on both counts. It didn’t seem as if it should take that long, and for most usage I didn’t notice much after 15-18 months. But 100% took that long. And that was just a wrist.
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